As soon as I listened to season one of Serial two years ago, I was hooked on true crime. There’s just something strangely compelling about a real-life mystery unfolding before your eyes – despite the potentially gruesome subject matter. And I’m not alone. From the success of documentaries like Making a Murderer to the 20th anniversary of JonBenét Ramsey’s death in 2016, true crime has been everywhere the last few years.
My mother finds this deeply unsettling. ‘Who wants to hear about that horrible stuff?’ she often asks. Umm, me and pretty much everyone else on earth. Not only are these often crazy, interesting stories, but there’s a voyeuristic quality that’s both horrifying and fascinating. It’s our greatest fears come to life, showing us the worst (and sometimes the best) parts of society. It also shows how bizarre the real world can be, with plots, mysteries, and storylines that often rival the very best fiction you can buy.
Between all the books, shows and movies, it can be difficult to navigate the world of quality true crime. But lately the genre has found a home in podcasts, where hosts can dive deep into a mystery, relaying both the facts and their own unique opinions. Some prefer to tell one story over the course of a season (ala Serial), while others deliver compelling true tales week after week. Here are my favorite three – and one good book! – that are guaranteed to keep your attention…and maybe even keep you up at night.
This podcast follows one true crime for an entire season, using multiple episodes to dissect a wrongful conviction case. Created by lawyers Rabia Chaudry, Colin Miller and Susan Simpson, Undisclosed is unique in that it comes at the crime from a legal standpoint, taking the listener through the steps of the crime, the investigation, the trial and the ultimate verdict. They also do their homework, often presenting new evidence that wasn’t at trial and showing the intricate workings of the law. If you loved Serial, but wish it had been a little more extensive, then this is the podcast for you.
Listen to: “The State v. Adnan Syed.” The first season of the show is still one of the best. It dives even deeper into the case of Syed and the murder that was also covered in the first season of Serial (Rabia Chaudry is a friend of Syed and was featured on Serial as well). This is a more in-depth look, examining the case from a legal point of view and ultimately coming to more possible conclusions than Serial did by its end.
If you want to never sleep again, then listen to Sword and Scale ASAP. Not only is it prolific – 91 episodes and counting – it also covers a lot of ground. Hosted by Mike Boudet, each episode discusses a different crime in detail, going over the facts, 911 calls, police investigations and more. The podcast is insanely well-researched and, as they put it, “goes beyond the news clips and the sensationalist headlines to give listeners the whole story.” Haunting and informative, Sword and Scale is perfect for any true crime junkie.
Listen To: “Episode 79” In this amazing two-part episode (concluded in “Episode 80”), a ‘normal’ couple gets pulled over one night and brought in for police questioning. Things get crazier from there. It’s a story that unfolds around you, playing on your sympathies and making you wonder how someone can be so blind as to what’s happening right under their nose.
If you tell people you like true crime podcasts, one of the first questions you’re likely to get is: are you a murderino? The term describes fans of the show and comes courtesy of Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, the hosts of the crazy popular My Favorite Murder. It’s hard to mash up true crime and comedy, but somehow these two women have managed to do it. Every episode they discuss their favorite murders, give their own theories, go over the facts, and somehow make us crack up at the same time. They even have a “Hometown Murder” segment where readers send in stories of the real murders that happened in their hometowns. It’s fun, informative, and still kind of terrifying. Their tagline, “Stay Sexy. Don’t Get Murdered,” should tell you everything you need to know about the show.
Listen To: “Episode 35 – A Small Foreign Faction.” JonBenét Ramsey’s death has been covered by almost every true crime podcast out there, but My Favorite Murder’s take is one of the best. They don’t bother diving too much into the facts, and instead dissect all of the different JonBenét documentaries and movies, and come to their own conclusions about what really happened to the child beauty queen.
American Fire, Monica Hesse (Liveright, July 11, 2017)
Ever since Truman Capote helped define the genre with his groundbreaking book, In Cold Blood, true crime has found a home in investigative literature. And while there are hundreds of great titles coming out soon, I’m most excited for American Fire, a story that twists together crime, romance and the intricacies of rural America. When dozens of fires start breaking out in abandoned buildings in Accomack County, Virginia, the police quickly realized that they were dealing with arson. But the fires didn’t stop, spreading along the coastline and causing citizens to form watch groups and eye one another with suspicion. Finally, mechanic Charlie Smith confessed to the crime. But when author and journalist Monica Hesse went down to interview Smith, she uncovered a story that went far deeper than she could have imagined. It’s a crime motivated by love and secrets, all set against the backdrop of a poor, slowly dilapidating community. About both crime and the changing American landscape, this is one of those crazy true stories that will pull you in from the very first page.